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The case for off-site computing

A small Calgary firm saves money by moving its servers, but even more importantly, it keeps them running

Globe and Mail Update

Matrix Solutions Inc., a Calgary environmental engineering firm founded in the 1970s, has lately been growing rapidly. It has acquired two companies since 2002 and more than doubled its payroll — to about 275 people from 120 — in the past three years.

Keeping up with that growth has been a challenge for Adrian Brudnicki, the firm's information technology manager. Until August, 2006, Matrix housed a growing number of computer servers on its own overflowing premises. The room that stored them had not been built for the purpose, he says, and lacked the power and cooling capacity to support the computing power crammed into it.

"We were getting all sorts of outages and downtime," Mr. Brudnicki says.

Building a new server room at the existing location didn't seem practical. Retrofitting existing space for servers is "almost always very difficult, very expensive, and you don't usually get what you want in the end anyway," Mr. Brudnicki says.

So Matrix chose to move its servers to a nearby data centre operated by Q9 Networks Inc., an outsourcing contractor with operations in Calgary and Toronto and a new data centre under construction in Vancouver.

The choice of Q9 was "largely a word-of-mouth thing," Mr. Brudnicki recalls — a member of Matrix's IT staff talked to colleagues at other companies and found Q9 got good reviews.

Matrix contracted with Q9 only for data-centre space, an arrangement usually called colocation. Mr. Brudnicki's team still manages all of Matrix's servers. Most of the work can be done remotely, he says, but "we're actually only a few blocks away from the data centre where our equipment is located, so I can walk over there in about 10 minutes." He can also call on Q9's staff for simple tasks that aren't worth the walk, such as turning servers on and off or changing cables.

Q9 bases its billing mainly on the electricity that Matrix's servers consume, and Mr. Brudnicki says that can add up, so he works at keeping the systems energy-efficient. That means buying servers that use less energy and turning to virtualization (which allows one physical server to operate as if it were several separate machines) to make more efficient use of the hardware.

The outsourcing arrangement with Q9 is saving Matrix money, though Mr. Brudnicki says the savings are hard to measure.

More important to him than trimming the bills is keeping the computers up and running. Since moving them to Q9's data centre "we've had virtually little or no downtime." That's due to many factors, he says, but especially to the better power, air conditioning and security infrastructure at Q9.

Since making the move to outsourcing, Matrix Solutions has moved to new office space. The new location actually has proper data-centre space of its own, Mr. Brudnicki says. But he believes the power and cooling could still present problems, and most likely Matrix will continue running its servers in Q9's data centre.

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